The Hammers Vets show the joue!

Vets Rugby: where prodigious talent meets inconsistent execution.  Where amazing potential meets infrequent availability.  Where sharp minds meet slowing bodies. Where grand plans meet modest implementation. Where parched lips meet post-match beers. And where, on Friday 18th November, Hammers Vets met London Welsh.

With 122 current and former Hammers on the Vets WhatsApp group and months of advance notice, debutant Vets’ captain Ed Clark – keen to get his new reign off to a righteous start – had no doubt hoped to select a team embodying the best of the Golden Age of Hammers Rugby. How could he not, for with this battalion of Hurlingham legends regularly penning insightful analysis as to the shortcomings and strengths of various national sides, surely all would clutch at the chance to put their theories into practice?  Would not a team in same vein as those Twickenham heroes who swept all before them also take the field for this first match of the Vets season?

Alas, the pink slips proved harder to find than a beer in a Qatari football stadium. Justifying why he was unanimously voted in as Vets captain despite a plethora of better-looking candidates however, Ed cajoled, begged, and pleaded with the contacts in his phone like man on Tinder at 2am and pulled together a team that had more promise than a Wasps-era Danny Cipriani.  So confident was Ed in the ability of this team to seamlessly gel together he dispensed with the usual lengthy warm up, and trusted that 9 minutes of stretching, lineouts, touch and two run throughs would be more than adequate for this team of aged heroes to find their grove.

The kick-off whistle revealed a London Welsh that was clearly intimated by this unorthodox approach to match preparation and, in response, had elected to employ the most obvious counter…thumping the beejesus out of the Hammers as though it was a 6 Nations grudge match.  Nevertheless, the energy and heart the boys showed in the soaking up this initial Welsh pressure paid off, the Hammers enjoying an early-offside penalty… which was shanked off the side of a boot for only a 6-meter gain.  Early nerves were evident.

With the throwing-and-jumping duties falling to the Ménage à Trois of Maxime (2), John Mowbray (5) and a resurgent James Smart (6), the Hammers “learn-on-the-job” approach ran into the more polished London Welsh approach to the aerial ballet of the line-out and saw them lose the ball.  Several phases later and under pressure out wide, the Hammers line buckled.  0-5 to the visitors.

Accepting the inevitability of conceding an early try while all were still getting used to each other, the Hammers went straight back at Welsh, with Sly Olutayo (14) putting in a big hit off the kick off and forcing the Welsh to run it out from their 22.  From this point the Welsh doubled down in their physical, direct and not-particularly-wide approach to gaining meters, keeping the ball in close to the ruck or reversing it in a classic stack-and-attack blind side offense.  Determined to knock them back, eventually a too-eager Hammers defence saw the Hammers concede an offside penalty, which Welsh kicked deep and regathered in the ensuing lineout.  Blunting the maul, desperate defence at the ruck saw an eager Richard Hodson (3) cruelly penalised what appeared to be a class jackal that was again mauled by the Welsh, this time to scoring effect.  0-12.

At this point, the Hammers jigsaw started to come together and play with more fluidity and intelligence in the open play.  Eager to keep the ball away from the Welsh forwards, Ed Clark (9) and Felix (10) began to spread the ball wider in attack, regularly finding Rob Hankey (13) and a lurking Steve Harington (7) to probe the soft spots.  Growing in confidence, the Hammers found themselves several times visiting the Welsh 22, frustratingly unable to convert meters or possession into points thanks to an improving-but-still-dysfunctional line-out.  The set piece bleeding turned literal at this point, with stalwart’s Hodson and Mowbray injuring themselves in a collapsed scrum, Mowbray to the point of having to go to veterinary surgery to get a few stitches to his ear.  Other injuries also began to stack up – Larry Furniss showed importance of never missing “shoulder-day”, while Smarty got a cramp, abused a physio who had the nerve to try and help him, and then went off for a wee rest.  With benches emptying, the half-time score was 0 -12.

The break proved a game changer.  Seb Money – fresh from challenging his reflection to a game of Supa 5s – joined the field to replace Hudson in the row, whilst Clarky moved to 10, Felix to 15, and on came Will Finn at 9. Immediately from the restart, pressure from Sly resulted in a Welsh knock on and a Hammers scrum inside the Welsh 22.  This time holding their own in the scrum, Harrington picked from the base, beat the defenders, and scored by the posts.  Clearly concerned at the prospect of there being only 35 minutes left to play and unsure if the Hammers could overcome the mountainous 5-point deficit in that time, Felix disregarded the convenience of using his own kicking-tee and instead advised Clarky that he was 100% sure he would slot what was a drop-kick from in front of the posts…

…which he then shanked, securing his Tin-Man post-match beer.  5-12 Hammers.

London Welsh came back strong and similarly to the first half, played to their strengths.  A series of penalties saw Welsh maul from the corner, and then when that failed to produce points, pick-and-go over the Hammers line despite some valiant defence by Julian Draper (6), Jack Mooney (20), and Ollie Brothwood (12).  5-19 to Welsh, followed by a similar try minutes later, 5-24.

At this point, the game changed. Starting to really gel, the Hammers began to play like the Barbarians, keeping the ball alive and running a tiring Welsh defensive line edge-to-edge.  With Will Finn (9) feeding the ball to coming-around-the-corner forwards, and Clarky able to rely on Rob, Jack and a lose forward unit clearly fitter than Welsh, holes began to open.  Meters were made.  Confidence flowed, to the point where even Steve Harrington disregarded a 4-on-2 overlap and instead decided to chip-and-chase from inside our own 22.  Madness!  Under pressure, the Welsh sought to kick their way out of trouble, only to find “snake-hips’ Felix running back at them holding the ball in one hand like a Fijian 7s player.  A dog-leg defence and lazy tackling allowed the Hammers to pass the ball through the hands and back again for Felix to cross over! 10-24!

London Welsh came back at the Hammers, determined. A yellow card for a Jack Mooney tip tackle saw the boys holding the line with 14 but desperate defence would see them concede no more points. Strips from AB, turnovers from Smarty, ruck inspecting from Seb – heroic stuff. And when we did have the ball, we not only looked dangerous, we were dangerous, culminating in a classic 9 snipe from Will Finn to score from 30 meters out in the dying minutes.  The final score; 15-24.

Retiring the bar, the boys were left to rue what might have been had the pieces come together a little earlier in the game, but there was much promise to take away from the first match of the season.  With the next match now in Feb, all are warned – get the date in the diary, there’s Hammers Rugby to be played!

Man-of-Match: Steve Harrington, for his running, aggression, and because he promised he would never kick again!

Tin-Man: Felix, for his misplaced confidence in his own drop kicking ability!